Denmark's the Spot!
New York Post, October 23, 2011
With Copenhagen a foodie’s dream, Scandinavian-inspired dishes are hitting town. Get your dose of warming aquavit just in time for the chilly weather!
From dark, piquant Finnish rye rounds to artfully prepared open-faced sandwiches known as smørrebrød, a swell of Nordic cuisine has reached this side of the Atlantic, proving there’s more to Scandinavian food than Ikea’s $2.99 Swedish meatball special. And the surge shows no sign of receding.
“It’s certainly growing,” says Brendan Spiro, who opened Vandaag (103 Second Ave.) last summer, where they serve Northern European-inspired eats such as thick slices of fragrant hay-smoked bread spread with gin-scented butter ($6), as well as frothy glasses of craft-brewed beer ($7 to $13). “We’re indebted to those cultures, but we’re playing with it, rendering it out.”
The renaissance comes after a long lull. “We’ve been here 24 years, and I don’t think Nordic food was really on anybody’s radar until a couple years ago,” says Swedish-native Hakan Swhan, who owns Aquavit (65 E. 55th St.), the only Nordic fine-dining joint in town — for now.
“There used to be a lot of Scandinavian restaurants in Manhattan in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, all here in Midtown.” As cruise liners crisscrossed the vast sea between New York and Scandinavia, stewards jumped ship to stay and open businesses. By the time Aquavit opened its doors in 1987, however, they were all but extinct.
In addition to the recent stateside shift, more Nordic chefs have garnered great acclaim. Most notably, Copenhagen’s two-
Michelin-star Noma was ranked the best restaurant in the world in 2010 and 2011, according to Restaurant magazine. Noma’s owners Claus Meyer and René Redzepi even went so far as to develop the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen, which emphasizes the use of local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients such as wild berries, grains, root vegetables and shellfish.
Many NYC-transplant Scandinavian chefs refer to this manifesto for culinary guidance, and are fortunately able to source comparable products locally from the Northeast: dill, beets, kale and turnips and Prince Edward Island mussels.
At the same time, Vandaag’s Spiro, who comes from a Greek-Jewish background, detects another similarity: “In New York, it’s not a far shot from some Jewish foods in central Europe. They have
herring, smoked sable fish — so it wasn’t too out of my vernacular.”
However, when Aamanns/Copenhagen opens in TriBeCa in December, chef Adam Aamanns, who critics hail for revolutionizing smørrebrød when he opened his eponymous restaurant and deli in Denmark five years ago, isn’t placing bets on the pickled herring. “The texture might be a bit challenging [for Americans],” he says.
Therefore, he plans to ease up on the bitter flavor-profile. “In Nordic cuisine, you get bitterness in everything from beer to horseradish.”
“Smørrebrød is Denmark’s answer to tapas or sushi,” he continues. “People stopped cooking these things themselves and let the factories mass produce them. I updated it.”
Just as he does back home, Aamanns plans to prepare everything in-house, from the rye bread-
sandwich base and classic toppings like gravlax (cured salmon) and salted cold cuts to more modern takes like roasted beef sirloin with homemade remoulade, crispy onions and fresh horseradish ($6 to $9 a slice).
Chef Annika Sundvik was also averse to serving the usual dishes when she opened White Slab Palace (77 Delancey St.) in 2009. “There’s more to Swedish cooking than meatballs,” says Sundvik, who concedes to the limitations of a short growing season and an interminably dark and cold Scandinavian winter. “Of course, a big part is pickling and preserving,” she adds. “But with the East India Trade, we started adapting ginger, cumin, cardamon, nutmeg and saffron. That’s as Swedish to me as cabbage and kale.”
Fisk, Sundvik’s cafe-delicatessen next door, should be open in time to sell special Christmas breads, as well as Nordic cheeses, cooking ingredients and candies. On tap for next year is Sundvik’s Crab House, which is slated to have an all-crab menu and a drink list limited to the traditional ale, lager and stout, prevalent in the brew-friendly culture.
Morten Sohlberg of Smörgås Chef (283 W. 12th St.) is also on an intense Viking quest, and plans to open a fine Nordic cuisine restaurant in spring of next year. It’s tentatively called Blenheim after his 150-acre farm that supplies his chain of eateries with fresh produce, like hydroponic lettuce and dill.
“It will be more similar to Noma,” says Sohlberg, who is originally from Oslo, Norway. “It will be tied to New Nordic cuisine, foraging wild edibles in a responsible way, but not as tied to gravlax and Swedish waffles — though we might have both in some kind of weird way.”
Savory bites aren’t the only nod toward the Nordic these days. At Fika Espresso Bar, which opened a third location last spring in the Financial District, Swedish coffee, pastries and chocolates are flying off the shelves as fast as magazines with hunky Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård on the cover.
In fact, next year, its chef David Johansson will move to back to his native Sweden to work on product development for Ikea Foods. Customers at the furniture outlet’s cafeteria should expect to see menu changes in time for the 2012 holiday season. But not to worry, says Johansson, “The meatballs are going to stay.”